How Airports Will Change After Coronavirus, According to Experts (Video)
Even before COVID-19 cratered air travel, the airport experience usually left something to be desired. Travelers had to contend with smudge-screened check-in kiosks, snaking security lines, crowded terminals, overpriced retail and dining outlets, and a frenzied boarding procedure — all before they even set foot on an airplane. Due to new health concerns, traveling to, from, or through airports is about to get a lot more stressful — that is, if people begin traveling in large numbers anytime soon.
The U.S. Travel Association recently released new sanitation and hygiene guidelines for airlines, hotels, and other operators to help keep “travel in the new normal” safe. But to get a sense of how the airport experience specifically will evolve, we talked to experts and officials about the changes in store for travelers. Here’s what you might see the next time you take to the skies.
According to John Grant, a senior analyst with British aviation data and analytics firm OAG, travelers should expect the entire pre-flight experience to transform. “We will see a very visible level of heightened health screening and adjustments to the previous travel process,” he said. Those adjustments will include limiting the folks who can actually enter airport buildings, more mobile and self-service options, and other now-normal social distancing principles applied to terminals,” he added.
“Cleanliness and communication are key,” according to Terence Young, a principal and regional aviation leader at architecture firm Gensler. “All passengers will require assurances that the experience from curb to aircraft seat is safe.”
The first pain point of the typical airport arrival will be just getting into the building itself. Some hubs, including Los Angeles International Airport and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, are limiting visitor numbers right off the bat by restricting entry to ticketed passengers only. This is in order to cut down on crowds and make social distancing easier.
Most airports, including San Francisco International, will start requiring everyone to wear masks for the foreseeable future, which makes sense, given that many airlines already have this policy in place. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, passengers might also hear customer service representatives periodically making announcements, asking passengers to abide by social distancing guidelines, according to ATL spokesperson Elise Durham.
Airlines will automate, or de-staff, the pre-flight process as much as possible. Delta, for example, is encouraging more passengers to check in online or via its app rather than at the airport, and it will install Plexiglass shields at all its counters by the end of June. Frontier now requires passengers to complete a simple health acknowledgement form during check-in to confirm that they are not ill and that they understand the airline’s new health policies, according to its director of corporate communications, Jennifer De La Cruz.
Social Distancing Solutions
Despite these efforts, though, social distancing at airports will not be completely possible, said Gary Leff from travel blog, View from the Wing. “Don’t expect to see overnight social distancing in airports,” he said. “Airports built before 9/11 just weren’t designed for the security requirements of the modern era, and so they turned to makeshift solutions. That’s likely to be the case going forward for hygiene-related changes that come out of the COVID crisis.”
In a recent interview, the CEO of London Heathrow, John Holland-Kaye, noted that given aircraft capacities and spacing requirements, certain social distancing demands simply aren’t feasible in current buildings. Spreading 400 passengers (around the number that can fly on a single jumbo jet like the Boeing 747) two meters apart would create a line nearly a kilometer long, which would stretch through one of the airport’s departure halls and out into the parking lot, he said, Bloomberg reported.
Ironically, conscientious travelers looking to do their part and stay safe might just be part of this problem, according to Joe Schwieterman, a transportation expert and professor at DePaul University in Chicago. “Travelers will arrive at the airport much earlier than they did years ago, due to their uncertainty about security lines,” he said. “For airports, this will be a messy process with a lot of trial and error involved.”
Temporary solutions will include installing acrylic shields at nexus points such as check-in desks, gate podiums, and retail outlet cashiers, like those being put in place at Tampa International Airport and Orlando International Airport. Passengers will also notice new floor markings denoting personal space as well as the flow of foot traffic in an attempt to ease congestion. Unable to quickly refurbish gate areas with new fixtures and furniture, many airports like Paris Charles de Gaulle and London Heathrow have been blocking off seats to maintain more spacing between individuals.
Major airlines are also eschewing convoluted boarding procedures, which sometimes comprise over a dozen different boarding groups based on elite status and other factors like holding a co-branded credit card. Instead, some are returning to a simple back-to-front formula while limiting groups to 10 passengers at a time on the jet bridge.
Taking the Temperature
Airports and governments are currently tweaking their security procedures in an effort to prevent possible cross-contamination and protect both passengers and workers. The TSA is deploying new credential authentication technology (CAT) scanners at over 40 airports nationwide that can use travelers’ IDs to pull up their flight information rather than requiring a boarding pass. It is also limiting the number of security lines being used — not much of a problem given the extreme drop-off in passenger numbers these days — disinfecting bins more frequently, and asking passengers not to take out their liquids and laptops for now.
Travelers can expect an additional layer of screening after the security check, though — namely, temperature readings and even COVID-19 rapid tests. Air Canada was the first North American airline to announce that it would begin monitoring passengers’ temperatures at the gate before boarding, and Frontier Airlines followed shortly after. Other carriers have yet to unveil similar plans, but the TSA is reportedly planning to take travelers’ temperatures at certain airports. People who hit 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher will be flagged for additional screening and may be rebooked at a later date.
“If the airlines get their way and temperature checks are turned over to the TSA at security checkpoints, then expect those to last long into the future, even after the current pandemic subsides, because bureaucracies have a hard time ratcheting down security measures,” explained Leff.
Farther afield, London Heathrow is testing camera-based technology to monitor passengers’ temperatures in immigration halls before rolling it out to departures, connections, and meeting areas. Etihad is installing advanced check-in kiosks that can identify virus symptoms in passengers when they show up for their flight. Doha International Airport is planning to outfit staff in state-of-the-art helmets that can conduct real-time thermal screenings of passengers.
On the other end of the journey, Vienna International Airport began offering tests for arriving passengers with results in about three hours at a cost of 190 euros ($205). That might be worth it for visitors with negative results hoping to avoid quarantine. Emirates, meanwhile, began administering COVID-19 rapid blood tests during check-in at Dubai International Airport on a trial basis. Don’t expect this particular measure to catch on, said Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research, who pointed out that drawing blood in a public setting presents a string of other possible issues, as does keeping groups of people in a contained area for 15 minutes or more, even if they are individually distanced.
Partly to fulfill pledges to improve hygiene, but also to reassure passengers with visual cues, airports are implementing an array of new cleaning processes. “Cleaning will be stepped up dramatically, and be far more visible to create more confidence among visitors, but also conducted more frequently than it has been in the past,” said aviation industry expert Harteveldt. “Passengers will see the cleaning brigade as their heroes because they are helping keep the public spaces clean and sanitary.”
Among the most high-tech innovations, Pittsburgh International Airport teamed up with Carnegie Robotics to provide two self-guided robots that use UV-C ultraviolet rays, like those some hospitals employ to disinfect the floors in high-traffic areas more efficiently. And Hong Kong International Airport is trialing full-body disinfection booths.
Travelers will notice a lot more hand sanitizer stations at many facilities, including Los Angeles International Airport, which deployed 250 new dispensers throughout its terminals, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which has installed 250 new hand sanitizing machines, and London Heathrow, which now has 600 new hand sanitizer posts. Las Vegas McCarran International Airport has even installed vending machines peddling items like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, masks, and gloves.
Airlines will disinfect gate areas more frequently, too. United just announced a new partnership with Clorox to use its products in gate areas and to disinfect planes, while Delta is using electrostatic sprayers with high-grade disinfectant to sanitize its gates and jet bridges as well as placing extra cleaning supplies at gate counters so that agents can spot clean as they feel necessary. That’s in addition to procedures that may be put into place by the airports themselves. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson is wiping down hard surfaces and seats with peroxide-based disinfectant and cleaning concourses and gate areas at least five times a day, according to Durham.
Many airlines and other operators have closed their airport lounges for the time being, but they are expected to reopen as passenger counts continue to climb. Some lounges could find a new audience among the most frequent fliers, since they provide spaces away from potentially crowded concourses. “Travelers will seek to have a sense of control over their surroundings,” said Schwieterman. “Retreating to these private spaces will provide them that.” This is especially likely since heavily reduced flight schedules might leave them waiting for hours between flights.
American Express, which operates a set of swanky Centurion Lounges in the U.S. and at select international airports, is “continuing to evaluate what reopening our Centurion Lounges will look like, with the health and safety of our card members and colleagues being our uppermost priority,” said Alexander Lee, VP of travel experiences and benefits at Amex. “We’re exploring a number of enhancements around cleaning protocols, food and beverage service, and more.”
That will probably translate to lower overall capacities and sparser furnishings with bacteria-resistant fabric that’s easier to disinfect, according to Harteveldt. He also expects lounges will do away with buffets and, “if not offer meals on demand, to portion out dishes and wrap them individually in the name of hygiene.”
Leff said not to expect major upgrades anytime soon, though, as airlines try to conserve cash by cutting back on amenities. Airlines will likely promote specific locations with outdoor spaces, such as the Sky Decks at some Delta lounges, “because outdoor spaces are generally safer from a virus transmission standpoint,” he said.
Travelers will still be able to pick up trashy magazines and $10 water bottles at airport stores, but will find new sections with personal protective gear, said Hudson CEO Roger Fordyce. “We’ve developed proprietary ‘Stay Safe Stations,’ stocked with disposable face masks, cleaning wipes, and hand sanitizers, at our travel convenience stores,” of which Hudson operates over 1,000 at airports and other transit hubs across the U.S. and Canada.
The chain is ramping up self-scanning capabilities, adopting new tap-to-pay credit card options, and waiving signature requirements on certain purchases to minimize personal contact with cashiers, shorten wait times, and reduce crowding. Fordyce told us that Hudson is placing a new emphasis on takeout food options. “Many airlines are eliminating or reducing in-flight food and beverage service, so we are providing travelers with a broad array of grab-and-go food and beverage options,” he said.
Existing airports will struggle with adjusting to new norms in the short term, but what do all these changes mean for those yet to be built? Expect much larger footprints, spaces that can be more flexibly adapted to various uses, and both a visual and overall emphasis on creating distance between travelers, according to Young from architecture firm Gensler. “Floor area is the best defense for a process-rich building such as an airport,” he said. Having square footage that can be modified to new uses can help facilities withstand shocks to how the system normally works, including new pandemic-related policies, he told us. Better ventilation for indoor air quality and filtering possible viruses will also be paramount.
“Airport amenities and retailers should adopt a more flexible strategy that will allow them to operate normally while being able to convert from in-person ordering to mobile pick-up,” said Young. Young believes airports might also adopt more “centralized clinics and health response teams that are ready to respond to biological toxins and infectious agents.”
While many folks will probably refrain from flying for some time to come, chances are, most of us will be back on an airplane at some point. Before we get there, though, we will encounter an entirely new normal at the airports through which we will be traveling. At the moment, airports, airlines, and governments are all testing new ways to keep passengers healthy, socially distanced, and reassured overall. Time will tell which of these measures will remain in place, and which will eventually be dismissed as ineffective. As with any health-related decision, evaluate your own circumstances and needs before traveling, and take the precautions required to stay safe and healthy.